The entire Vorkosigan series is a fun read, Bujold plays with a bunch of old SF tropes like faster than light travel, interstellar war and empire, new technology, and a lot of pre-existing SF stereotypes. But, she manages to make the whole thing fresh enough to keep the reader interested. One of the best things about the series has been watching Bujold grow as a writer, 'Shards of Honor,' the first book in the Vorkosigan Saga, was published in 1986, so it's not much of a shocker to say that Bujold has changed as a writer since then, it was almost thirty years ago.
'Mirror Dance' comes right in the middle of the series, published in 1995 Bujold was beginning to break away from the standard Galactic Warfare plotting of the previous novels, and really the books that come after Mirror are much more focused on character than the ones previous. Mirror sees Bujold really stepping into her own as a writer taking on much more of a challenge than she had before.
Two characters dominated the Vorkosigan Saga prior to Mirror, Cordelia Naismith and Miles Vorkosigan. Both are interesting and compelling characters in their own right, but neither really stands out as groundbreaking as far as SF is concerned. Miles, the diminutive protagonist for most of the series is a fan favorite character, and makes for good reading, but the idea of a handicapped individual overcoming long odds to achieve greatness is such an SF cliche that Philip Dick was sending up that trope back in the sixties with 'Dr. Bloodmoney.' Cordelia, on the other hand, playing the fish out of water is the strong female character that (I'm happy to see) has always occupied a place of pride in SF. I think Burroughs brought her out at the turn of the century.
And so what if these characters are cliches? Bujold does great things with them, and writes incredibly compelling books. If these were the only two characters to drive the series it would still be deserving of all the accolades piled on it (10 + Hugo and Nebula Nominations, with five wins). SF has a big sandbox, it's nice when authors create something brand new but it's not absolutely necessary. There are still great books to be written treading the ground that the SF Masters laid down. No matter how many books may have been written on any given subject, there's always room for one more good one.
Prior to Mirror it seemed that the entire Vorkosigan Saga would fall into that category, playing with tropes that had been kicking around SF for years. 'Mirror Dance' delved deeper into the world Bujold had already created, and kicked a few characters up a notch. By the time I had read up to Mirror I was trying my best to read the series in order, and I have to say I was wholly unprepared for what was inside.
The character of Mark Vorkosigan had appeared earlier in the series, 'Brothers in Arms' was a decent novel. It wasn't nominated for any awards, and though I wouldn't call it a bad book by any means, it retread more of the same ground from the previous novels introducing a far-fetched plot for Miles to solve and delving a little deeper into the soap opera half of Bujold's space opera series.
There was no hint that Bujold would introduce so much depth to the character of Mark, that there even was so much depth to the character. He is something I had never seen before in SF. There are plenty of confident, heroic characters spread all throughout any SF library, it's rare to read about characters with actual neurosis, truly conflicted characters with genuine flaws.
Bujold has never shied away from complicated subjects, which is perhaps what makes the Vorkosigan saga so interesting. Homosexuality (never a very taboo subject in SF but still a difficult thing to sneak into literature in the mid 80's), rape, sex, all of these things had shown up in her writing before Mirror. Bujold goes to an incredibly dark place with Mark in this novel, without shocking the reader for the sake of itself she shows what a lifetime of neglect and abuse might actually do to a person like Mark. It makes for a great read.
Bujold's Vorkosigan series straddles the line between soft and hard SF (whatever that means), but it's the 'sort' side to the novels that keeps me coming back, the characters. It's a joy for the readers to keep coming back to these characters, to see them grow and watch their motivations change as they age. As much as I enjoyed the first books in the series it's 'Mirror Dance' that is my favorite, and the character of Lord Mark I'm always waiting to see in each new book published (though he doesn't show up as much as I'd like). After Mirror I'd have to say 'A Civil Campaign' is high on my list, and that book has no action at all. I don't know if anyone has actually complained about the drop off in action in the series, the latest book might have well have been called "Ivan Finds a Wife," and I loved the hell out of it.
You can start this series anywhere, Bujold didn't even write all the books in chronological order, there's no reason to read them in order, but for anyone starting the series I'd recommend putting Mirror off as long as you can, just to save it for later.
Anyone looking to purchase this book can find it here for pretty good value.